A Short Interview with Dr. Jonathan Schlebach

a photo of Dr. SchlebachThis past August Indiana University welcomed a new addition to its chemical biology research faculty, Dr. Jonathan Schlebach. Dr. Schlebach came to IU following a post-doctoral position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to begin setting up his own research program and teaching graduate and undergraduate courses. He offers some insight on what his research program will cover, his career choice, and his advice to students interested in looking into scientific research. (more…)

A Black History Month for All of Us

This is a ScIU guest post by Brett Jefferson, a Ph.D. candidate in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Department of Mathematics. 

From Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space, to Dr. Sylvester James Gates, a theoretical physicist who published the first comprehensive book on supersymmetry, to Marcellus Neal, the first African American graduate of Indiana University, African Americans have pioneered much of our nation’s scientific- as well as broader-history.

In February of 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced Negro History Week: a time to honor African Americans who have shaped the world as we know it. Carter expressed to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia) that African Americans should both study their history and boast of it–that this very history is going to inspire us to greater achievements. Certainly it has! (more…)

“Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds”[1]: Topic modeling Darwin’s reading at Indiana University.

February 12th is Darwin Day!

In our December 27th post  “On On the Origin of Species: An ode to science writers”Clara Boothby explored how clear, compelling science writing can increase circulation of scientists’ ideas among the general public. While our previous post saw the Origin of Species as a model for scientific writing, here we explore how researchers at IU are seeking to understand the formation of groundbreaking ideas, such as those seen in Darwin’s Origin, through the use of a new analytical method called ‘topic modeling.’ Topic modelling uses statistical models to identify common topics across various documents based on the occurrence of similar semantic structures.

A library full of books. New ideas in science inevitably stem from past ideas. We know that past discoveries guide future discoveries because Darwin had contemporaries working on evolution, such as Alfred Russell Wallace. Past knowledge came from fields like animal husbandry, where selection for certain genetic features was already applied to such crafts as pigeon breeding. That is, it was understood that breeding birds with specific physical characteristics increased the likelihood that their offspring would carry such traits. What was unknown at the time was the extent to which genetic selection occurred without human intervention. Darwin was also influenced by prominent theories in human ecology, such as political economist Thomas Malthus’ writings on the relationship between population growth and famine. (more…)

A moving target: How reliable are dementia assessments?

“We’re going to do a few tests to see whether your mother is showing typical signs of dementia.” The word conjures chilling images of loved ones’ lives reduced to confusion and fear as memories and independence slip away. While loss of physical independence is unfortunate, it can be more devastating to lose a loved one’s verbal companionship. Dementia reduces one’s ability to name objects, people, or recollect specific memories. As a result, dementia sufferers use language less and become removed from conversations happening around them.

As scientists, our goal is to ascertain what can be done to slow the progress of dementia and mitigate its symptoms. This takes the cooperation from many teams to break down the individual symptoms and see how these symptoms respond to treatment. In Speech and Hearing Sciences, our focus is on preserving language faculties in patients with dementia so that they can communicate effectively for as long as possible. Patients’ progress (or decline) is measured at various intervals to see how well selected treatments are working. For many years these assessments were primarily behavioral in nature. For example, therapists might count how many words a patient with dementia could name in one minute. Behavioral tests work well because they are inexpensive and easy to administer; however, patients’ performance may vary considerably from day to day based on fatigue, emotional state, or other factors. (more…)

Single Molecule Magnets: The Data Storage of the Future

USB drive and hard disk drive are shown.
USB drives and hard disk drives are two devices we use to store electronic data.

The storage capability of hard drives has been increasing exponentially over the past 60 years. The IBM 350 RAMAC disk released in 1956 was able to store 2000 bits (a unit used to measure storage ability) of information per square inch. In 2014, Seagate Technology released a hard drive that could store 1 billion bits in every square inch.  Now only two years later, there is talk of hard drives that can store 1.3 trillion bits per square inch!

To further improve our data storage capabilities, scientists today are working on the development of new materials to store information, such as single molecule magnets. A single molecule magnet is a molecule which can be magnetized using a magnetic field, yet still remains magnetized once the magnetic field is removed. This means that each molecule can contain 1 bit of information, allowing much more storage than the technology in computers today. (more…)

Teaching an old dog new tricks: Neuroscience research at IU combines centuries-old methods with modern technology

This post is the second installment in a two part series. Check out last week’s post here.

Thanks to modern technology, the field of cellular neuroscience has become illuminated with brightly colored images – tissue samples, cells, and individual molecules have been stained, photographed, colorized, and even reconstructed in three dimensions. A Google Image search quickly provides thousands of examples, and a walk through the research wing in IU’s Multidisciplinary Sciences Building II is no different. The images that IU neuroscientists have collected are proudly displayed on posters and signs that line the hallways.

However, the field of neuroscience hasn’t always been so bright. Before the late 1800s, scientists could look at samples of brain tissue through the lens of a microscope, but there was no way to pick out individual brain cells, or neurons, from the background–the detailed structure of individual neurons was essentially invisible. That all changed when Camillo Golgi, an Italian biologist, developed a technique that he called “the black reaction.” He found a way to stain entire neurons black against a brown background. For the first time, neuroscientists were able to see individual neurons. His technique, now called Golgi histology, was quickly adopted by Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who created the first maps of how neurons are organized in the brain. (more…)

Feeling stressed? Researchers at IU are studying how stress reshapes the brain

This post is part 1 of a two part series. Check out part 2 here.

An illustration of the brain surrounded by a pattern of multicolored squares

Imagine it’s 9:45 am. You have a meeting across town in 15 minutes and you just realized that you overslept your alarm! You throw on some clothes, grab a cup of yesterday’s coffee, and rush out the door, only to realize that your car has a flat tire…

Feeling stressed? Anyone who has experienced a situation like that knows what stress feels like. But, while stressful experiences aren’t pleasant, we typically find ways to deal with them. We solve whatever issues that have come up, find ways to relax, and move on. But what happens when severely stressful circumstances hit? Or when stressful experiences are unrelenting? (more…)

For a hybrid species of ribbon worm, it only takes one to tango

Along the eastern Atlantic coasts of France, at some point in the last 100,000 years, two ribbon worms of different species engaged in worm intercourse (do not fear, I will not discuss the mechanics here). The two species were Lineus sanguineus and L. lacteus. Interspecies sex is uncommon in itself, but what’s especially surprising in this case is that their union gave rise to a new species: L. pseudolacteus.

Pink colored worm, with two small eyes visible at the head end of the animal (left end in the photo)
The ribbon worm Lineus sanguineus, mother species of L. pseudolacteus. Photo by Dr. Eduardo Zattara (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Several barriers to interspecies sex have long been documented. Often there are no offspring from these unions. Even when the species are closely related enough to give rise to a hybrid, most hybrids are infertile, like mules and hinnies, which are born when horses and donkeys are crossed. On the other hand, some hybrids can be fertile. For example, oranges, which are hybrids of pomelo and mandarin are often fertile. However, our main protagonist, the hybrid of L. sanguineus and L. lacteus, is infertile, yet it can reproduce… by a special kind of regeneration. (more…)

The Social Lives of Bacteria

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” —- Aristotle

This famous quote by Aristotle gets at the heart of what is considered the most human quality – being social. However, biologists have long known that ‘social behaviors’ are not the sole domain of human beings. Examples of cooperation, conflict, altruism and even spite have been known to exist across the animal kingdom. Popular examples include social hierarchies in groups of non-human primates, pheromone-based signaling for attracting mates, male-male competition for access to mates and many more. Are these exceptions? It turns out that social interactions are pervasive across the living world, and even the simplest living organisms – single-celled, microscopic bacteria – engage in a wide range of social behaviors! (more…)

On On the Origin of Species: An ode to scientist-writers

a stack of biology books, including On the Origin of Species
Origin of Species is the foundation for most other work in evolution

Sometimes, when we read about science in textbooks or newspaper articles, it can be easy to slip into thinking that after the scientists make their discovery, the writing is someone else’s job. Not so! In addition to being researchers and experimenters, scientists must also be writers if they wish to share their findings with the rest of the world. Before there were laminated cards with Newton’s laws of motion, Newton himself wrote Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and before there were textbooks about evolution, Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. (more…)